Alcest

support Birds In Row + Kælan Mikla
author AP date 15/02/20 venue Pumpehuset, Copenhagen, DEN

It is Saturday evening, and while lots of gigsters looking for a party have no doubt wandered over to BETA to watch the autotune-infused alternative metallers Natjager mark the release of their début album the day before, the more discerning metalheads have amassed in the centre of the city at Pumpehuset to watch the French blackgaze pioneers of Alcest airing material from their latest album, “Spiritual Instinct”, for the first time in Denmark. The venue is completely sold out and most of the crowd has turned up early, curious to find out what these surprising artists Alcest have invited to join them on this tour are like. Let’s find out, shall we?

All photos courtesy of Stefan Bruse thor Straten


Kælan Mikla

Alcest have made a habit of bringing unexpected and sometimes unusual support bands with them on tour, and the Icelandic darkwave act Kælan Mikla certainly ticks those boxes. As the trio emerges onto the dimly lit stage and sheets of ambience begin to wash over us, I am initially reminded of Anna von Hausswolff both in musical terms, but also by virtue of the expressive manner of vocalist Sólveig Matthildur. Amidst the sparkle of Laufey Soffía’s synthesisers and the pulse of Margrét Rosa’s bass guitar, she dangles and rings little bells and sings shamanic chants, and as such, there is no indication at first that Kælan Mikla is, in fact, not an ambient noise outfit. This becomes clear as “Hvernig kemst ég upp?” off the band’s 2018 album “Nott eftir nott” takes over with an electronic beat and invites us back to the ‘80s heyday of and film and video game soundtracks. These are strange tides for me, but even if I did hold an affinity for this kind of synth-punk music, I would likely find myself disheartened by the monotony of the Reykjavík-born trio’s set tonight. The opening track was wisely chosen for the purpose of creating intrigue, but the three musicians seem to be unable to sustain the momentum over the course of their show. It looks cool — the lighting bestows upon the band an air of mystery, and Matthildur surely captures everyone’s attention with her witchy gesticulations and coyly swaying hips. But the minimalistic songs, few of which differ from one another, have made be weary already by the time “Næturblóm” arrives as the seventh song, leading me to conclude that even though the genre is in itself not my thing, I have seen plenty of similar artists pull this off more compellingly.

5


Birds In Row

The houselights are dimmed, and breath of ominous noise fills the room for several minutes in order to establish the atmosphere desired by this French trio. And if I didn’t know better, I would most likely be expecting something entirely different than the chaotic post-hardcore that erupts from the opening track “We Count So We Don’t Have to Listen” (taken from their 2018 album “We Already Lost the World”). Birds in Row may be playing to a different audience than usual, but it does not take long before the customarily explosive antics of these anonymised musicians have impressed a sizeable portion of it. No holds are barred as the band powers through the likes of “Love Is Political” and “I Don’t Dance”, only stopping to catch their breath and deliver heartfelt commentaries that put the songs into the right context. When the bassist and guitarist are not preoccupied with growling and screaming their sociopolitical messages at us, they are rendered a blur of action, their instruments swinging and their bodies twitching with a zeal that should make a fan out of the sternest skeptics among us. Yes, Birds in Row are a phenomenal live act, but even if such intense showmanship is not your thing, those with an interest in experimental music should still be able to appreciate this Laval-born trio just on the basis of their material as well. Dissonance is in focus in many of the songs, but there are glimpses the reasons why Alcest have picked this band as their main support in all of them, with the maelstroms of anguished noise often followed by periods of shoegaze, soaring crescendos and, in the case of the oddball “15-38”, even grunge. So when the titular “You, Me & the Violence” from the band’s 2012 album eventually brings their show to a conclusion, it does not surprise me that when the venue erupts into a roar of approval and applause.

8


Alcest

The bar is set high for these Parisian maestros, but if there is one band capable of standing up to such fierce competition, it would be Alcest. This is the fifth time I have seen the quartet live, and none of the previous occasions have been even remotely disappointing — in fact, those shows have all been unforgettable, and as such, my expectations are high. The band kicks off with “Les Jardins de minuit”, which also opens their newest album, 2019’s “Spiritual Instinct”, and to my own surprise, I find myself raising a critical eyebrow. Just as this chord-heavy track did not capture my imagination on the record, it fails to do so in the live setting as well, both because it lacks the transcendental qualities of past offerings from Alcest, and because the four musicians come across as somewhat distant compared to the warmth and intimacy one is used to experiencing from frontman Stéphane ‘Neige’ Paut in particular. The following “Protection” is another new song and it leaves a similar impression… as though it were unresolved, somehow. It is an unfamiliar feeling, albeit one apparently shared by those in my vicinity, as the shut eyes and blissful smiles one usually sees are largely absent. This could be the inevitable off-day for a band who have never failed to bind me into their spells, I realise, and prepare my emotions for the looming conclusion.

It may not be Alcest’s the finest hour then, but it would be unheard of, if the Frenchmen did not discover at least some of their magic during the show. Once they move onto older tracks like “Oiseaux de proie” (taken from 2016’s “Kodama”), there is thankfully a drastic change in this regard, with the band as well as the audience finally surrendering to the trance. Alcest have always been introverts, as befits their dreamy blackgaze, but when they allow themselves to be immersed by their own music rather than detach themselves from it, that introspection can create an incredibly special atmosphere. It is this atmosphere that envelops the venue during “Autre temps” (off 2012’s “Les voyages de l’âme”) as well, inspiring the crowd, yours truly included, to join in on those beautiful minor chants that constitute the song’s chorus. It could be that all that was missing was a proper audience response, for the subsequent “Écailles de lune - Part 2” (from its namesake 2010 outing) is delivered in an absolutely mesmerising rendition, tickling my tear canals for the first time this evening. But alas, as Neige and his companions return from the nostalgia trip and offer us “Sapphire” instead, much of the enchantment that was painstakingly built up is shattered once more by a track that, honestly, lacks the sharp edge afforded to earlier Alcest material by the presence of real black metal in its core.

Thus the evening has taken the form of an emotional rollercoaster. One moment the venue sinks into an awkward lull during the melodramatic “Le Miroir”, the next moment everyone is joined in sing-song during the enrapturing title track to “Kodama” — all the while the quartet musicians appears to be undecided on whether this should be another day at the office or a concert for the ages. It is thus entirely expected that, after a nonetheless rewarding encore in which both “Là où naissent les couleurs nouvelles” and the staple “Délivrance” (the latter taken from 2014’s “Shelter”) are aired, the people around me exchanging thoughts about what they have just experienced all seem to agree that while this has not been a decidedly bad concert, it certainly is a far cry from what Alcest usually deliver on these shores.

7

Setlist:

  • 01. Les Jardins de minuit
  • 02. Protection
  • 03. Oiseaux de proie
  • 04. Autre temps
  • 05. Écailles de lune - Part 2
  • 06. Sapphire
  • 07. Le Miroir
  • 08. Kodama

— Encore —

  • 09. Là où naissent les couleurs nouvelles
  • 10. Délivrance

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